I’ve been blessed with many longtime yoga students. Many have attended my classes for more than 10 years, some for more than 20. It’s a privilege to move through life’s inevitable ups and downs with such a solid core of wise and wonderful humans.
I met one of these students—I’ll call her Patricia—in the late ’80s. At that time she was in her 50s. She came to classes regularly for more than 20 years, participating fully into her late 70s. Balancing on one leg was her one nemesis. For decades she propped herself against the wall in order to practice such staples as Tree Pose.
Eight years ago, Washington DC-based teacher Jenny Otto taught a workshop in Salt Lake. She began each class with a five-minute foot massage that included spreading the toes; massaging the toes, balls, arches and heels; and rolling a tennis ball under each foot. She preached the importance of tending to our feet every day as we age—a process that is happening to all of us no matter when we were born.
The next week, I brought Jenny’s foot massage to my classes. My students loved it and we practiced it regularly. Six months later, Patricia was balancing on one leg—without the wall—for the first time in her 20-plus years of practice.
Not long after Jenny Otto introduced me to foot massage, an article in The New Yorker (“The Way We Age Now,” April 30, 2007) described how leading geriatrician Dr. Juergen Bludau spent most of a new patient’s initial exam looking at her feet. He claimed that the condition of a person’s feet tells an important story about her general health. According to the article, the greatest risk for most of us as we age is not what we might think. Our greatest overall risk is falling.
The article’s author, Atul Gawande, writes: “Each year, about three hundred and fifty thousand Americans fall and break a hip. Of those, forty per cent end up in a nursing home, and twenty per cent are never able to walk again. The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications, and muscle weakness. Elderly people without these risk factors have a twelve-per-cent chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a hundred-per-cent chance.” I find these numbers staggering—so to speak.
In early June I reconnected with Mark Bouckoms, a yoga teacher from New Zealand who co-taught a teacher training here with Donna Farhi in 1996. In his workshop, he spoke about the importance of the feet in traditional yoga practice. Our feet are our most powerful energy source, he said. They contain a plethora of marma points, gateways to the connective tissue and the nadis, the subtle lines that channel energy to every cell in the body. The 72,000 nadis and their 108 marma points are Ayurveda’s answer to the Chinese meridian system.
In Mark’s workshop, we started each practice tending to our feet. In my classes, even if we don’t go through the full foot regimen, we always begin each class by rolling massage peanuts—which have been a huge hit at our studio—under our feet to stimulate the connective tissue via marma points. Most people feel marked differences in the two sides of their bodies after simply rolling a massage peanut under one foot for about 30 seconds.
Nice Things You Can Do for Your Feet
Walk barefoot. Direct contact, especially with uneven surfaces stimulates the connections between your feet’s 11 stretch-sensing muscles and your brain.
Avoid high heels. I’m well aware that heels are de rigueur for many special occasions. (I recently read about some women that were denied red carpet access at a swanky awards show because they wore flats!) And some people just enjoy wearing them. But there are many ways in which heels can cause major damage to your feet, knees, hips, back and everything above, but that’s another article. If you want to wear them, do so sparingly.
I hate to say this because they are a summer favorite for so many, but flip-flops are not great either. Your toes have to work very hard to keep them from falling off. This creates a whole lot of tension in your feet and toes. It’s fine to wear them for running errands and for short walks, but stick with more substantial sandals or shoes for extensive walking.
- Sit on the floor with legs extended. Bend your right knee and place your ankle across your left thigh. Thread the fingers of your left hand between your toes.
- With your fingers between your toes, circle your ankles about 8-10 times each direction. Then flex and extend the balls of your feet 8-10 times and twist them 8-10 times.
- Remove your fingers and massage the balls of your feet and toes for 15-30 seconds or more. Find your “bubbling spring” point (Kidney 1 in Chinese medicine), a pronounced depression located between the first and second metatarsals just below the ball of your foot. It’s easy to find. It’s a power point that, when stimulated, is said to send a spiral of power through your body. Spend some time—30-60 seconds—massaging it.
- Massage your arches. One of my students, a body worker who knows reflexology, says this stimulates and calms your “guts,” the vital organs.
- Straighten out your leg and let it settle. Repeat on your left foot.
- Stand up and roll a tennis ball under each foot for 30-60 seconds. After your first foot, take a moment to feel any differences between the two sides of your body, all the way up to your neck and shoulders.
We rely on our feet all day long, way more than we realize or appreciate. Take some time—five minutes—each day to give them some TLC. Your feet will return the favor by keeping you stable and upright.